When the inmates control the asylum
So what happens when we allow partisan redistricting? The short answer is “bad things.” Here’s the longer answer:
[Warning: This post is rife with sarcasm. Most of the time, no offense is meant… most of the time.]
Here’s our scenario – your state legislature has gerrymandered the heck out of your home district. So you, a decently moderate Republican are stuck in a district of lots of Democrats… Say, 65% or so of your neighbors vote for Democrats. Republican performance in your precinct is high, the area of Republicans in your town has been broken up between three different districts, ensuring that any republican votes are effectively diluted. Your Republican friend across the street? He’s in a different district. Your conservative father in law down on Main street? He’s in yet another district. And to top it off, your state legislator, who used to live down the street, has been redistricted right out of his own district! In fact, there are so many Democrats who have been put into this district of yours that there’s almost no reason a republican should run – he’ll lose and lose badly, often even if the Democrat isn’t the greatest candidate.
So what happens in this situation? Well, first thing first, Democrats win. Second, Republicans lose. And third, the primary election becomes more important than the general election. In the situation where the opposition party has no chance of winning the general election, and one party will always win the General Election, the real competition comes in the primary election, when the parties choose their nominees. Imagine, for a moment, that America was a 70-30 Democratic country. What would be a more important election? The General or the Democratic primary? Yeah, it’s an easy answer.
OK, so fine, but you might say that that’s the rub… that’s the math… that’s the way the cookie crumbles… welcome to the school of hard knocks, Republicans! Suck it up. And besides, what impact does this have any me, average voter guy? Simple: Your representative gets chosen by crazy people.
You see, primary elections aren’t exactly popular. Let’s use an example: In Virginia, last month’s gubernatorial general election in November saw about 2 million voters out of 4.7 million registered, which is about 42% turnout. In June of the same year, in the contested Democratic gubernatorial primary (there was no R Gub primary), turnout was 320,000 people… about 6.5% turnout.Primaries tend to bring out very few people. And those people don’t tend to be average voters, they tend to be partisan voters – more Joe the Plumber than Joe Sixpack. While one third of our nation identifies as Republican, Democratic or Independent, primary voters tend to be far more skewed towards one side of the spectrum or the other.
Now, imagine for a moment you are a candidate in a primary election and you have a few opponents. You face the following situation: You will win the general election if you win the primary because there are so many Democrats in your district, so you don’t have to worry about reaching across the aisle and getting votes on the right or the center. And because you know that your primary election will be decided by voters who are decidedly more liberal than your district as a whole or even Democrats in your district as a whole, you don’t have to worry about voters in the middle or even moderate Democrats. No, your election will be decided by crazy people -the most liberal (socialist?) tree-hugging, latte sipping, arugula eating, NPR listening, criminal coddling, terrorist loving, voters that exist in your district.Well, something tells me you will be pitching policies and messages that appeal to your far left. And, as a Democrat, I feel I can say that those people are a bit crazy. And imagine you’re a Republican in the same situation – you’re going to be pitching your campaign to your voters: Birther-believing, Palin-loving, gun-toting, anti-government, anti health care, neo-con supporting, creationism believing, science denying, rich guy loving, poor people hating, war-mongering, super-right conservatives.
And you won’t be surprised to hear that crazy people vote for crazy candidates… or at least people so far out of the mainstream that they are FAR from the mean of their district or even the mean of their party.
So what we end up with: polarization. Lots of super-liberal Democrats who don’t really represent their districts, lots of super-conservative Republicans who don’t represent their districts and a state legislature which looks nothing like the state.
So the people of the state look like this – a normal curve:
And the legislature looks like this – a bimodal distribution:
Now think of what happens to legislative process when you get far right and far left legislators in one place…. Yeah, nothing. When there’s no one in the middle, there is no compromise. And thus, little progress, just a lot of grandstanding on hyperpartisan issues – the things that, every day, you and I complain about.
And back to elections for a minute:If you want to run for office, but, like most people, you live in a gerrymandered district, then you have little incentive to run against an incumbent. In fact, contested races have been hovering at historic lows for years:
“But along with that, the small number of incumbent defeats, was a continued decline in the number of seats that were genuinely contested, competitive races. Measure it before the election by political handicappers, after the election by the margin of victory, and you will see a steady decline over the 20th century, sort of reaching a point now in the early 21st century of about two dozen seats that seem to be competitive out of 435.” Thomas Mann, of the Brookings Institute.
And when there is no competition, voters don’t vote. Because why would you bother If you don’t have a choice?In Virginia, you can draw a pretty direct line between competitiveness – how close a race is – and turnout:
So we come to the end!
For your future reading, I’ve linked two files for our next blog:
1. An EARLY summary draft of the Bipartisan Redistricting Commission Act. (I’m baring my soul on this one, be nice!)
2. The final bill as it died in House of Delegates subcommittee.
David Solimini is a political strategist and the owner of ADco Creative Productions. 2007-2008 he was the Executive Director of the Virginia Redistricting Coalition. He is currently the Media Director of the Truman National Security Project. Solimini holds a BA from the College of William & Mary. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.